Immigration and Customs Enforcement released 68,000 foreign nationals who had criminal convictions and charges last year instead of pursuing deportation, according to newly uncovered documents -- a statistic one senator said represents an enforcement "crisis."
The internal documents were obtained and published by the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates stricter immigration enforcement. According to the documents and the group's analysis, ICE agents reported encountering 193,000 "criminal aliens" in 2013, but only targeted 125,000 for deportation.
A total of 67,879 were released.
CIS called it a "large-scale abuse of authority."
"The Obama administration's deliberate obstruction of immigration enforcement, in which tens of thousands of criminal aliens are released instead of removed, is threatening the well-being of American communities," study author Jessica Vaughan said in a statement. "It's not a matter of if, but how many families will suffer harm as a result."
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The "criminal aliens" category includes both those charged with and convicted of crimes in the U.S.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement accused CIS of distorting the numbers, and claimed that some of them could represent minor offenses. Further, the agency said a total of 216,000 "convicted criminals" were removed in 2013.
"ICE is focused on the removal of criminal aliens," a spokeswoman said in a statement. "The percentage of criminals removed continues to rise. Nearly 60 percent of ICE's total removals had been previously convicted of a criminal offense, and that number rises to 82 percent for individuals removed from the interior of the U.S. The removal of criminal individuals is and will remain ICE's highest priority."
The ICE documents did not break down the types of criminal activity that those allowed to stay in the country had been convicted of. But a 2012 report by House Republicans tracked 26,000 illegal and criminal immigrants who were re-arrested, and found they were tied to 58,000 crimes and violations -- much of them drunken-driving arrests, but also major criminal offenses like murder and rape.
The latest statistics challenge repeated claims by the administration that, when weighing whether to pursue deportation, they are prioritizing cases where the illegal immigrant in question has been convicted of a crime.
Indeed, the documents show that those with a criminal record are far more likely to be targeted for deportation than those without one. But they also show the agency is letting thousands who have a criminal record off the hook.
The CIS report said factors such as "family relationships, political considerations, or attention from advocacy groups" are likely helping to "trump criminal convictions as a factor leading to deportation."
The report further deepens concerns about the course of an ongoing internal review of the administration's enforcement and deportation policies. Groups like CIS have warned that this could chip away at an enforcement structure that already has been weakened.
"The preponderance of the evidence demonstrates that immigration enforcement in America has collapsed," Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, said. "Even those with criminal convictions are being released. [The Department of Homeland Security] is a department in crisis."
Earlier this month, a DHS spokesman said the internal review of immigration enforcement is a process that is "ongoing" and will be done "expeditiously."
"Since taking office, the secretary has made clear that he shares the president's commitment of enforcing our immigration laws effectively and sensibly, in line with our values," the spokesman said. "As part of that effort he has been taking a hard look at these tough issues, meeting with a range of stakeholders and employees and already has been assessing if there are areas where we can further align our enforcement policies with our goal of sound law enforcement practice that prioritizes public safety."
CIS also reported that in 2013, ICE charged just 195,000 of the 722,000 "potentially deportable aliens" they encountered.
Further, the agency reported more than 870,000 illegal immigrants have been ordered removed but have remained in the country anyway.